Frank. E. Buttolph, born in 1844 at Mansfield, Pennsylvania, was a woman of daunting character, renowned for being a conscientious collector of American menus of all sorts — from restaurants, hotels, steamships, and trains to wedding banquets and society dinners hosting important personalities of the time. Buttolph was extremely passionate about collecting menu cards, and was fifty years of age when she embarked on this journey, which resulted in the collection of around 25,000 menus, worth 23 years of toil. In 1899, Buttolph offered to donate her private collection of menus to the New York Public Library; her collection is featured at the Library as Miss. Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930. Almost all the menus in this collection have been personally stamped by her with the blue oval stamp, which overtime became her signature mark. Buttolph was also a keen collector of postcards and lighthouses.

Known first from birth as Frances Editha Buttles, she changed her last name to “Buttolph” as she found out that “Buttles” was a corruption of her ancestral name. She did not prefer being called either Frances or Buttles, and her first name — “Frank”, which is regarded as slightly unusual for a female in the nineteenth century, was speculated to be equivocal and gender ambiguous.

Dr. John Shaw Billings, The New York Public Library’s director at that time, offered Buttolph a volunteer position as the Library’s menu archivist. She then dedicated more than two decades of her life to the collection of menus from places large and small, rich and poor. Her volunteer work was, many a times, perceived to be obsessive in nature. She is known to have spent countless hours doing participant work for the Library, stamping the menus with the now world-renowned blue oval stamp of hers.  Buttolph’s myriad and erratic personality has been found to be the cause of her triumph as well as her gradual, hapless downfall. Her relationship with her coworkers was a strained one; Buttolph’s hostile method of collecting and conserving menus alienated her, no one could understand her motives or her mission. However, this discomfort never wavered her resolve which was to diligently collect as many menus as she could. Her sentiments can be understood from her words when she said- “For many years my library work has been the only thing I had to live for. It was my heart, my soul, my life. Always before me was the vision of students of history, who would say ‘thank you’ to my name and memory…”. Never being officially affiliated with the Library, she was dismissed in 1923, for her negative behavior, and increased inter-personal quarrels and disputes with her coworkers.

The writer of The Literary Collector magazine’s March, 1905 “Notes” section, presents Miss Frank Buttolph as an “eccentric woman with a bizarre obsession.” While such a perception was not uncommon for people like Buttolph in nineteenth century America, her infamous temper and disruptive nature does not take away from her significant work, which was intended to be beneficial to future students and researchers studying the culinary culture of that time. Her work has been found to constitute innumerable research collections in the libraries of the early twentieth century. Buttolph was extremely meticulous in the collection and organization of menus- she regularly put up advertisements in several places canvassing for them. One of her many advertisements was titled as “Menus wanted for Historical Collection”. She had lofty standards for the admission of menu cards in her collection, and rarely hesitated in rejecting or returning back the ones that did not meet the standards desired by her.

Following her dismissal from the library in 1923, Buttolph died of pneumonia in the next year on February 27, 1924, at the Bellevue Hospital. Her menu collection continues to remain one of the largest in the world, and recently the New York Public Library initiated a project called “What’s on the Menu?” which will transcribe digitized menus to aid future research of New York City’s culinary past. Shortly after her death, a number of History students began to restore to life her work and started contributing to it, amassing as many as 40,000 menu cards as of today.

 

Sanjana Hooda

Sanjana Hooda

Sanjana Hooda is a student of law at O.P. Jindal Global University. Her interests include literature, culture, travel writing and gender studies.

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